France, a political tightrope

The aftermath of the presidential election is also the prelude to a parliamentary vote whose outcome is crucial to Francois Hollande's leadership, says Patrice de Beer.

Patrice de Beer
23 May 2012

The French left can win elections only "by stealth" because a majority (albeit tiny) of French voters traditionally "lean to the right". The comment, made in an interview with Le Monde by the financier Alain Minc - who served as the departed president Nicolas Sarkozy's visiteur du soir (unofficial adviser) - seems justified by the pattern of national elections in the history of the fifth republic. Since 1958, the left has won only three legislative elections, the most recent in 1997, and only two presidential ones; and both François Hollande's victory over Sarkozy and the left's in the local elections of 2011 owed much to "Sarko's" deep unpopularity.

Sarkozy's gerrymandering of France's electoral system, undertaken in order to protect his UMP party's parliamentary majority, has made the pattern even harder to break in the approaching legislative elections, which will be held on 10 and 17 June. The Socialist Party, according to the PS's own calculations, would need more than 51% of votes to achieve a majority in the new national assembly - even though in the presidential vote, Hollande won more votes than Sarkozy in 333 of the 577 constituencies across France.

This political and electoral background explains why the new French government formed after Hollande's victory is initially a "fighting", showcase government aimed at winning the forthcoming elections. France's electoral system was modified a decade ago such that parliamentary elections were to be held several weeks after the presidential one, and the presidential term was reduced from seven to five years. Thus both the new head of state and the opposition have to start campaigning anew immediately after the presidential vote. So, this time, the honeymoon ended even before Hollande's inauguration ceremonies had been completed. This very unhealthy and inefficient system has led some to propose that the two elections should be held together, to ensure that the new president has a parliamentary majority from the start of his term.

The government's design

The government appointed by Francois Hollande shows a sense of compromise, diplomacy and flexibility. The new prime minister is Jean-Marc Ayrault, who heads a cabinet that - for the first time in France - embodies gender parity and ethnic diversity, as well as accommodating various political strands. There are three ministers of Caribbean origin, three of north African origin, and one Korea-born (who was adopted by a French family at the age of six). Representatives of the two other parties who supported Hollande, the Greens and the Radical Socialists, are included, as is the Florentine (or Byzantine) variety of rival factions within the PS. Only three ministers have had previous government experience: ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius (at foreign affairs), ex-Europe minister Pierre Moscovici (at economy and finance), and ex-finance and justice minister Michel Sapin (at labour, employment, job training and social dialogue).

The formation of a multi-faceted coalition that could both ensure the government's coherence and avoid hurt to any faction has been a delicate alchemy. It is also a temporary one, for the fate of most ministers will depend not only on their skills but on their success in the June elections. Any defeated minister will have to leave the government.

Hollande's main rival, PS secretary Martine Aubry, has not forgotten her defeat in the primaries which elected the party's presidential candidate. She showed her displeasure at not becoming prime minister by announcing - at the very moment Jean-Marc Ayrault was assuming his functions - that she had rejected the offer of a "super ministry", and by blocking the candidacy of several pro-Hollande candidates in favour of her own. A "putsch", said some. The PS has been for two decades a kaleidoscope of conflicting ambitions, and Hollande will have to devote time, energy and skill to keep it together.

Moreover, after the elections he will have to negotiate with the far-left Left Front, and maybe also separately with its leader, the populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (if he wins his electoral duel with the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen) and the Left Front's main component, the Communist Party (PCF). The PCF's presidential candidate received only 1.93% of the votes in 2007, but the Mélenchon-led alliance of which it was part received 11.05% in the first round in 2012. The PCF seems more interested than Mélenchon in having ministers in a new government, and Hollande, who is far from assured of having a majority of his own, might need to enlarge his coalition towards his left (as well as towards some fractions of the left of centre).

This political entomology might look boring - and somehow is - but it is important to understand how the French left works. This contrasts with the right, which has long been led by a strong presidential figure (Jacques Chirac, then Nicolas Sarkozy). Now, the right (in the shape of its dominant party, the UMP) is orphaned by Sarko's departure, and weakened by the failure of his far-right-leaning strategy which alienated moderate voters; threatened by National Front [FN] candidates who could oust several conservative incumbents; and divided by leadership rivalry between the party secretary, the ambitious Jean-François Copé, the outgoing prime minister François Fillon, and the perhaps too moderate and consensual former foreign and prime minister Alain Juppé. For once, the right appears as divided and rudderless as the left has long been.

The political challenge

All this should not distract the new president from presiding and the new government from governing. Hollande went straight from his inauguration to Berlin to meet Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel who had, like many European leaders, acceded to Sarkozy's request by refusing to meet him when he was a candidate. Then, after a first cabinet meeting, he flew to the United States for the G8 and Nato summits, and a one-to-one with President Obama (his first ever). It is far too early to judge whether he will succeed as both a "normal" (his favourite self-description) and a determined president. But in this respect Hollande has already been helped by two auspicious factors.

First, the very fact he has been (and continues to be) lambasted by the right for his lack of experience, charisma, and tendency for compromise - so different from Sarkozy's cavalier, arrogant if not brutal style - means that he could well only do better than his opponents have prophesied. The world meetings that have already taken place, in which Hollande's intended strategy has been to "put everything on the table", seem more pacific and less adversarial without Sarkozy.

Second, it has been his good fortune - but perhaps also his political foresight - to add a growth dimension to an anti-crisis strategy so far based mainly on austerity. This has now become the flavour of the day as a succession of European governments preaching austerity has been ousted by voters. Politics is also the art of seizing one's chances, and Hollande - having been crucified for months for being "irresponsible" - has done that. Now Angela Merkel seems the last and only figure to stick to her austerity platform. At the same time, Hollande has been at pains to insist that reducing France's budget deficit to zero by 2017 remains a top priority - not an easy task, as he would be the first French leader to reach this target for almost forty years!

Hollande is also trying to differentiate himself from his predecessor (whom he hardly ever refers to by name) by removing most of the pomp, bling and even vulgarity which characterised Sarkozy's reign. Even if some British foreign correspondents mocked his first day's journey to the Arc de Triomphe in a salesman's car in the pouring rain, the more modest style he aspires to is unheard of in a country where presidents are a kind of monarch surrounded by all the grandeur of the state. Hollande did not even invite his family (his partner excepted) to the Elysée palace for his inauguration; and his ministers have had to sign a charter of good behaviour, promising (inter alia) to stop at traffic-lights and avoid flying if they can travel by train in less than three hours (which includes even Marseilles!). How will he strike the right balance between his "normality" and the necessary respect owed to his office?

The beginning of a presidential term is always symbolic. Sarkozy ruined his by consorting with business cronies in a posh restaurant in the Champs Elysées the night he was elected, before going on a cruise on a billionaire friend's yacht after having said he would shut himself in a monastery to think about the task ahead. Hollande wanted to avoid this pitfall.

But to succeed, Hollande will first need a majority in parliament and avoid a poisonous "cohabitation" with an UMP government. This would be a recipe for disaster, as the centrist presidential candidate François Bayrou and Sarkozy's last interior minister Claude Guéant have said. Such cohabitation also contravenes whatever remains of the Gaullist spirit of national leadership. This puts the UMP leadership in an awkward position when it asks voters to create a balance between president and parliament (and to weaken the newly elected president) by voting in its favour.

The odds are that voters will give parliamentary legitimacy to their president, while the UMP suffers from an FN onslaught driven by Marine Le Pen's desire to be portrayed as the opposition to the left. But if the result overall is another "lean to the right", France will have to muddle through the worst crisis for decades without a united leadership.

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